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What does “pre-tuition fees” mean in Scotland?

July 22, 2014

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

–  Alice Through The Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll


On 10 July, the Scottish Government issued a news release which stated, among other things (emphasis added):

The number of English domiciled students applying to English HEIs is 455,910, almost 20,000 below the pre-tuition fees level of 475,760.

The Minister for Learning, Alasdair Allan MSP, was then quoted as saying:

I am very pleased to see that a record number of Scots are applying to university both in Scotland and around the UK. This is in contrast with England where application numbers have still not returned to the pre-tuition fee levels. They remain almost 20,000 applicants below their pre-tuition fees level. There can be few stronger arguments for determination to keep education free here in Scotland.

There is a problem here, though. The 475,760 comes from UCAS figures for 2011 (though the press notice did not mention this) when fees were already £3,375 a year in England.  The figures being reported are  available  here (2014 application cycle figures, as at 10 July). It turns out the same, and similarly unreferenced, claim was included in an Scottish Government news release back in January.

For a comparison with the pre-tuition fees level, it is necessary to go further back, at least to 2005, the last year fees in England were free for those at low incomes, or even to 1997, the last year they were free, full stop. Doing that shows that university applications in England have risen by some 120,000 since 1997, an increase of one-third. Compared to 2005, 24% more people from England have applied through UCAS this year, meaning 88,000 additional applicants over the decade (the increase in UCAS applicants from Scotland since 2005 is 19%). [2005 data from here; 1997 data extrapolated from Table 1 here.]

So any claim that applications in England are below the level they were before tuition  fees applied would be simply wrong and the latest figures clearly demonstrate the opposite. Indeed, a report based on the same UCAS data in the The Guardian noted that:

The proportion of British 18-year-olds applying to university has reached its highest-ever level, according to figures for undergraduate applications in 2014 – thanks to a surge in applications from London and among women.  Ucas, which administers entry to higher education, said there was a 4% increase in the number of applicants to UK universities, despite a small decline in the number of 18-year-olds in the population overall.  Young people from the worst-off areas in England are now almost twice as likely to apply to university as they were 10 years ago, according to the Ucas data.

What is stated as being true for the UK here is true also for England – unsurprisingly, given it accounts for over 80% of students. This does not mean all is rosy: as the same report notes, there are signs that higher fees since 2012 have had a more negative effect on some groups than others, particularly mature students and part-time students,  and also that the growth in applications from young men from disadvantaged areas has been slower than that for similar young women.  But that’ doesn’t alter the fact that there were fees in 2011.

Nevertheless, the claim went on to be widely reported in the Scottish press, at minimum in The Scotsman, The Herald, The Times and The Daily Mail (Scottish editions), The Courier (twice), various local titles and the STV website, as well as a variety of news sites which onwardly post stories from elsewhere.

Some of these reports did refer to the high-point figure being from 2011, but without noting that this was a fee-charging year.  The appearance of a reference to 2011 in reports is, it quickly becomes apparent,  down to the intervention of the Press Association. In repackaging the SG’s material, the PA reproduced all the statistics in the SG notice with no substantial alteration to the way they were described, with just one exception:   it replaced the reference to  the high-point figure being “pre-tuition fees”  with an explicit description of it instead as being from “the 2011 cycle”.   As one would expect, given its role, the PA left the ministerial quote intact.  Most of the reports above were in effect the PA release, sometimes credited to it, sometimes not.

There is clear evidence of what “pre-tuition fees” was taken to mean by those who stopped to read it.  In this rare  by-lined piece, the author, reasonably enough, recast the slightly jargon-y “pre-tuition fees” to  “before the introduction of tuition fees.”  Similarly, a press notice issued later the same day by another organisation (the SNP) stated: “the number of English domiciled students applying to English HEIs was 455,910 – almost 20,000 fewer than before tuition fees were introduced.”

So far,  when the problem with this wording has been pointed out to newspapers or government, no sort of correction or clarification has been published (as far as can be easily seen, happy to be corrected). Perhaps worrying about factual accuracy in this context in Scotland is a bit out of fashion. I’ll keep trying.

Scottish newspaper readers could hardly therefore be blamed for being left with the impression that applications in England are now lower there than they were when tuition was free, a substantially untrue belief which will very probably be repeated in conversations and on-line discussions in future, and which no-one with access to the means to do so in Scotland seems inclined to put right – yet, at least.

This blog is concerned largely with the distribution of student debt in Scotland.  All this is marginal to that – except that it’s already clear that beliefs about the effects of policy in England, in particular,  have a strong influence on the  discussion of student support policy here more generally.  It would be best if those beliefs were factually-based.

Perhaps it will be obvious to everyone else who reads it that “pre-tuition fees” means “pre-the point where tuition fees increased from £3375 to £9000“. Perhaps.


‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.




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